Drifting and striding with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


I’m not sure why it’s taken me till now to find this line from Robert Mitchum about walking, “People think I have an interesting walk. Hell, I'm just trying to hold my gut in.”  It’s a great line, and the story of many of our lives as we get older.

Mitchum was talking to Earl Wilson, for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1971, when he would have been aged 54.  The previous year he'd made the movie Ryan’s Daughter,(that's a still from it below), and he’s certainly not the slim young man of his youth but really he doesn’t look bad at all compared to the average 54 year old.

Even so, it had all started rather differently, as it usually does:

And he was evidently a man who liked to get his shirt off, whether he was walking or not, and I'd say that gut is being rather fiercely held in in this picture, from Going Home, actually from 1971.

Equally, Mitchum spent much of his career in a well-cut suit and/or a trenchcoat, which would hide many of the gut problems.

 Of course there are times when even a suit can’t completely get the job done, though (inevitably) he's still looking pretty good here, and certainly a lot better than Michael Winner:

And sometimes of course a man stops walking, sits back and doesn’t even try to hold it in, although that the belt is doing its very best.

And as seen here, there are some walkers who actually prefer to let it all hang out.  They ain't no Robert Mitchums.  Who the heck is?:


Saturday, February 25, 2017


Meanwhile in Hollywood, walking under the freeway, we still feel the bern, even as we feel a bit ripped.

Monday, February 20, 2017


If the Internet has taught us anything it’s that we’re seldom alone in our passions and obsessions.  However apparently singular and obscure your interests, somebody somewhere almost certainly shares them.  Chances are too that somebody has already set up Facebook and Instagram groups and is organizing seminars and conferences on the subject, maybe walking tours as well.

This is reassuring in some respects, but occasionally disappointing in others, in a “Oh, I’m not nearly as special as I thought I was,” kind of way.  And so we come to the Thomasson, a term I’d never heard until a few weeks ago.

The tern was devised in the 1970s by the Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa (above; he seems a cheerful fellow) who taught a course in “Modernology” to students in Tokyo.  He and they noticed that in modern cities there are various architectural features, remnants, that no longer serve the purpose for which they were built.  In fact they often serve no useful purpose whatsoever, and yet they remain a part of the environment, sometimes ignored, sometimes vaguely repurposed, but often surprisingly well looked-after as a kind of art object.

We’re talking about staircases that don’t lead anywhere, doors that open into fresh air up on the second or third stories of buildings, bricked in gateways, the remains of cut down telephone poles, bridges to nowhere, inaccessible balconies, and there’s the Atomic Thomasson – the silhouette left by a building that’s no longer there, as if it had been obliterated by a nuclear blast.

In some ways the Thomasson is a kind of folly, although in other ways it seems to be the opposite of a folly, since a folly is designed specifically to be useless or at least decorative, but the Thomason was originally designed to be useful but has somehow lost its way and become an aesthetic artifact.

It also has something, though not everything, in common with a ruin.  Genpei Akasegawa is especially taken with freestanding chimneys, which remain even after the buildings they served have been demolished.  But these are not precisely ruins since they’re intact and potentially usable, it's just that nobody has any use for them.

Genpei Akasegawa formalized and discussed these matters at length in a book titled, in English, Hyperart: Thomasson, a collection of essays that had first appeared in the Japanese magazine Photography Times.  It’s a rum old book that sometimes seems to take itself too seriously, sometimes not nearly seriously enough, but the description of Thomassons as “schisms in man-made-space, appearing along a fault line of a city’s architecture” seems fair enough.

The name comes from the American baseball player Gary Thomasson, who in 1980 was signed to the Yomiuri Giants in Japan for a huge amount of money.  He was supposed to be a slugger, a big home run hitter, but he proved to be quite useless.  To be honest I do think this is a bit hard on poor old Gary Thomasson.  I mean, it’s not like he was trying to be useless, he wanted to hit the ball out of the park, he just happened to keep missing it.

I realize now that I’ve been noticing and appreciating Thomassons for most of my life, and sometimes I’ve photographed them, despite never knowing there was a name for them.  I’ve been sent back to my photography files to look for appropriate pictures but also, perhaps more importantly, when I walk, and not only in the city, I now find myself looking for flaws, looking for Thomassons, with a brand new intensity.

You’ll see examples from my own collection of Thomasson pictures scattered around this article (they’re the ones in color, the black and white come via Genpei Akasegawa himself). 

I’m especially fond of steps to nowhere, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever find anything quite as wonderful as the Thomasson on the cover of Genpei Akasegawa’s book, it appears inside too, a door handle stranded in the middle of wall. 

It’s easy enough to imagine that somebody might want to closed off a doorway, in which case you might brick it up and plastered over it, (this one is behind concrete, apparently) but why on earth would you leave a door handle sticking out?  And if the in the caption is to be believed, the handle actually turns.

 Genpei Akasegawa gives a detailed explanation of how, when and where this Thomasson was found (not by him, and it’s the wall of a drycleaner’s) and I want to believe him, but I think there’s at least a possibility that this is an installation, a work of art created by him or somebody else.   You know what artists are like.

Friday, February 17, 2017


I think this may be a highpoint of the cartographer's art (it shows part of Victorville, California):

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Boy, that movie The Lost Weekend (1945, directed by Billy Wilder), is a hard one to watch these days.  I just saw it again on Turner Classic Movies and by the end I really needed a drink.  The real problem, I think, is Ray Milland as the hero Don Birnam (I think that’s a reference to Macbeth – author of the novel on which the movie was based - Charles Jackson - was nothing if not high-toned).  Milland’s pereformance is all sweaty, eye-rolling, scenery-chewing hamminess.  Naturally, he won an Oscar for best actor (he might certainly have won for most acting).

Another, insurmountable, problem is the premise that the hero’s drinking problems stem from writer’s block, from the fact that he’s a failed writer, a man who can barely start, much less finish a project.  At the end of the movie it appears he’s going to get his act together and knuckle down and complete his novel.  Oh yeah, that’ll solve all his problems.

Still, the movie does have various localized pleasures, not least the scene when Birnam takes a long, desperate walk through Manhattan, trying to find a place to pawn his typewriter for cash.

We know from internal evidence in the movie that Birnam lives within easy walking distance of PJ Clarke’s Saloon on Third Avenue at East 55th Street, a real location, still in existence when I last heard, although they had to build a replica in Hollywood to complete the film.

He walks north, and we see a sign for Third Avenue and 75th Street

Then 3rd and 90th.

He certainly walks further than that though the movie isn’t absolutely clear how far, but eventually he gets the news that all the pawn shops are closed – it’s Yom Kippur – a Jewish holiday and the Irish pawn shows are closed too, in solidarity. The Jewish pawn shops reciprocate by closing on St Patrick’s Day.

Birnam then walks back down through the city ,eventually returning to the bar, many hours later, where the bartender gives him just one free drink then kicks him out.

I found myself turning to the book of The Lost Weekend, which I read so long ago I’d pretty much forgotten everything about it.  It seems that the movie is about as faithful as any movie ever is.  Our hero is a man of the crowd, “How many mornings such as this, mornings in other cities as well as New York, had he taken such walks?  Mornings when he truly didn’t know if he was going to give way in a faint after the next step, much less before he reached his destination – liquor store, pawnshop, bar, bed.  Mornings of preposterous, inexplicable panic …”

The walk to pawn the typewriter is in there, and it’s a really showy, literary walking/psychogeography setpiece, though it’s different from the movie in several ways – not least in that Birnam walks up 2nd Avenue, not 3rd.  Did Jackson know something pan shops that Billy Wilder didn’t, or vice versa?  And he goes as far as 120th Street before retuning via First Avenue.  As in the movie somebody does explain to him that it’s Yom Kippur, but the joke about the Irish pawn brokers isn’t there.

Jackson really pulls out all the stops as he describes the New York street scenes, “The cigars, the glass shops, the hamburger joints, the cafeterias, the news-stands, the dishes in bushel baskets, dishes for sale; the Ruppert brewery stretching from 92nd to 93rd, looking timeless and European, like something you checked in the Baedeker and went around to see; the hardware, the framers, the upholsterers, the haberdashers, the key shops (Keys Made), the moving and trucking, the Soda and Candy, the dairies; the stockings set up on the sidewalks (the tables and tables of boxes and boxes of stockings); the chi-chi horror of the flea-markets; the milk-bars, the orange-juice stands, the weighing-machines, the gaping, smelly dead fish ..”  It goes on and on.

Charles Jackson was described by Donna Rifkind in the New York Times as “one of the most successful failures in American letters.”  It was in her review of Farther and Wilder, a biography of Jackson by Blake Bailey’s.  She describes how Jackson blamed his mother for his alcoholism, and also for his homosexuality.  His mother said of his early work, “I don’t see anything so wonderful about it, it all happened, all you had to do is write it down.”  Thanks mom.  That doesn’t sound like the very best reason for drinking, but I can see how it might be a reason to have writer’s block.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Possibly you’ve never been to Amboy, in the Mojave desert.  If you’re heading to 29 Palms from Primm or Needles then you’re likely to pass through it.  If not, not.  It’s one of those desert towns in private hands that comes up for sale once in a while.  I’m always tempted.

But even if you haven’t been there there’s a chance you may have seen it in the movies (not least the Rutger Hauer version of The Hitcher) or in photographs, not least this one by William Egglestone. 

It’s the sign for Roy’s Motel and Café that makes you stop, get out of the car and walk around.  I’ve never known the motel to be in business but some of the cabin doors have often been open and this time was a kind of art installation in some of the cabins, going by the name of the Matza Archives:

There’s also a school in Amboy, again long out of business, a kind of garage where I have seen evidence of people working on cars, and there’s a post office, and a public toilet which are thriving.
I can never tell if they’re really selling gas or not in Amboy, but the café/gift shop is reliably open and I always feel obliged to buy something even if it’s only a soda.  This time however I had a treat in store.  This Felix the Cat walking sticker:

The guy behind the counter said they’d been selling them for a while but they’d been slow movers until they’d had the bright idea of printing Amboy California on the bottom.  Works for me either way.

If you’re serious and have 4 hours to spare you can go out of town and clamber up the Amboy Crater, which I have been known to do, and the proof of which is here: